The Briefing 05-16-17

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Alarming moral barometer: New Gallup poll reveals Americans hold record liberal views on moral issues

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The "new monogamy"? What the open marriage movement says about our cultural moment

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The Briefing

May 16, 2017

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Tuesday, May 16, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Alarming moral barometer: New Gallup poll reveals Americans hold record liberal views on moral issues

We know that we are experiencing a vast reshaping of the entire cultural landscape. We know that the morality of the world around us is changing in fundamental ways, but sometimes rather than just sensing it is so or even just in a general way knowing that it is so, it is helpful to have documentation, and in the last several days a very pronounced form of that documentation has come. The Gallup organization, one of the most respected public opinion organizations in the United States, has released a major study in recent days. The headline of the story released on May 11 is this,

“Americans Hold Record Liberal Views on Most Moral Issues”

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As the story written up for Gallup by Jeffrey M. Jones says,

“Americans continue to express an increasingly liberal outlook on what is morally acceptable, as their views on 10 of 19 moral issues that Gallup measures are the most left-leaning or permissive they have been to date. The percentages of U.S. adults who believe birth control, divorce, sex between unmarried people, gay or lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage, doctor-assisted suicide, pornography and polygamy are morally acceptable practices have tied record highs or set new ones this year.”

Now let’s look really closely at what we just read. We saw the initial paragraph in an article summarizing vast research undertaken by the Gallup organization tell us that Americans on a range of the most controversial moral issues are now registering the most liberal or permissive positions to date—that is to say, ever. Now there’s some fundamental questions to ask here. One is whether or not a study like this is unique, perhaps anecdotal, not representative of a trend. But what gives this particular research more credence is the fact that Gallup has done this kind of survey over and over again. And what we’re looking at here is the continuation of a trend line.

From a Christian worldview perspective, there are several dimensions that jump out at us almost immediately. The first is, yes, there really is a fundamental moral change taking place in this country. That’s something that we knew long before this research dated May 11 was released. But what’s particularly interesting here is the fact that we have documentation that we have reached a new moral stage. That is to say there is an emerging consensus on the part of Americans on many of these issues, and it is not a conservative consensus. It is a newly liberal consensus. The second thing we need to note is this: we have often been told that we are watching a fundamental reshaping of this country, in some ways a new conservative posture on many issues as over against liberal trajectories that we were told had been checked. But what makes this research so important, especially year-by-year, is that what it indicates is that on no major moral issue, save one, has there actually been any actual movement over the last 30 years in terms of a conservative direction. On virtually every issue, especially every single issue related to sex, gender, and sexual morality, Americans have been moving steadily to the left in a more liberal or permissive direction.

That one exception is the issue of abortion. Arguably, the evidence indicates, including the evidence in this report, that Americans are now somewhat more conservative, more pro-life in terms of conviction, than Americans were, say, in 1973 or 1975. That’s good news. But the other thing we need to recognize is that even as there has been a somewhat more conservative movement on the issue of abortion—there has been to some degree a more open embrace of pro-life positions—the reality is that the basic moral consensus in this country remains rather permissive even when it comes to abortion. That is to say, a majority of Americans indicate that even though they are not for abortion in all circumstances, they are for abortion in some circumstances. And at least a very thin majority of Americans at this point say that even though they are more pro-life than pro-abortion, they are not calling for the reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.That tells us something.

Now in terms of the prophets of the moral revolution, they had told us decades ago even in the late 19th century and the earlier 20th-century that time was on their side. Some of the theorists in terms of how morality develops in a society had argued that even as secularization would be inevitable, so also would be a moral permissiveness. That’s exactly what we’re seeing. What isn’t documented in terms of the language of this Gallup report is what is even more fundamental, and that is that what you are seeing here is evidence of the loss of the binding authority of biblical Christianity where it had once bound the consciences not only of individuals, but of the general society, especially on issues such as the definition of marriage and the understanding of gender, and of course the regulation of sexual practices and the establishment of sexual morality.

When it comes to this current Gallup study, it asks quite explicitly about the moral acceptability of certain practices. Now for instance, 91% of Americans said they found the use of birth control morally acceptable. That is the highest number ever in terms of this kind of research; divorce 73%. Now in terms of birth control, this probably doesn’t represent anything of an immediate sea change. But when it comes to divorce, there’s something probably more shocking that is embedded in that number, because we’re looking at the fact that 73% of Americans who responded to this survey indicated that divorce is morally acceptable. That is a virtual reversal of the situation that would’ve been found, say, had this survey been taken in the 1950s or even in the 1960s.

When it comes to sexual morality, well, the numbers again are the highest in terms of liberal or permissive value that have ever been recorded. These include issues such as gay or lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage, but also issues such as pornography; that was 36%. That’s a high. Now recall what this means is that 36% of Americans said it is morally acceptable to use pornography. That’s a stunning number in and of itself. You’re talking about over a third of Americans saying, basically, there is no moral problem with pornography.

But when it comes to the other issue in terms of sexual morality measured here, the really stunning figure is 17% of Americans saying that they find polygamy or polyamory also as morally acceptable. Now upon reflection, that’s a pretty shocking figure. You’re talking about almost one out of five Americans saying that they would find polygamy morally acceptable. Now you also have to note that this is an abstract survey. It’s a survey of opinion, not a survey of behavior. This isn’t saying that one out of five Americans would be involved in polyamory or polygamy. It is simply a reflection of moral judgment. But that’s a very profoundly important statement.

We do also need to note there are some practices that clearly still call out to the moral disapproval of Americans in terms of the vast multitude. Cloning humans is one. Only 14% of Americans said they found that practice morally acceptable.

But we should also note here that when it comes to extramarital affairs, only 9% of Americans said this would be morally acceptable. Now there’s a fundamentally interesting question to ask. Why if Americans are so newly liberal on so many other—indeed, almost all other—sexual practices, why when it comes to the question of adultery would Americans be far less approving of what has also been included within the total structure of Christian sexual morality amongst those things understood to be sinful? Well my guess is this: when it comes to extramarital affairs, people still do not want to be cheated upon. You also have to wonder at that point if when individual Americans are asked questions about the morality of certain practices, if they can maintain merely thinking in the abstract when the question comes down to fidelity in marriage.

One other alarming issue in terms of this report is that 57% of Americans said that they agreed upon the moral acceptability of physician-assisted suicide. That again tells us a great deal about the great moral shift, the great worldview shift in our culture. The data indicate that the vast majority of younger Americans are cohabiting rather than getting married, at least in terms of their first residential romantic relationship. That’s borne out in terms of what Americans say they find morally acceptable. The vast majority say they do not find sex outside of marriage as fundamentally unacceptable, and furthermore when it comes to children, to having a baby outside of marriage, 62% said that’s morally acceptable. Now that’s stunning because insofar as I know, there has been no major modern society that before the last several decades has ever come anything close to that kind of a moral judgment.

Gallup’s analysis of their own report comes down to this,

“Over time, no issues show movement toward conservative positions”

In the text of the report we read this,

“Of the 19 issues included in this year’s poll, 13 show meaningful change in a liberal direction over time, regardless of whether they are currently at their high point in Gallup’s trend. No issues show meaningful change toward more traditionally conservative positions compared with when Gallup first measured them.”

Gallup goes on to reflect upon the implications of its own research. The report says,

“Of the 19 issues included in this year’s poll, 13 show meaningful change in a liberal direction over time, regardless of whether they are currently at their high point in Gallup’s trend. No issues show meaningful change toward more traditionally conservative positions compared with when Gallup first measured them.”

They conclude,

“Not only is the more liberal outlook apparent in the perceived morality of issues, but it is also evident in the increasing percentage of Americans who describe themselves as liberal on social issues.”

Now this is really interesting. In that first paragraph I recited, we are told that even as Americans have adopted more permissive views on matters of morality than they held in the past, that this is now traceable only even if you look at the 21st century. Now let’s just remind ourselves, there you’re talking about less than 20 years. You’re talking about a revolution in morality that is traceable to roughly 17 to 18 years of human experience. That’s pretty breathtaking. In the second paragraph we are told that there are two different issues in which Americans are now more liberal or permissive. The first is in the actual positions that are revealed in terms of their research, but the second is in how Americans say they perceive themselves. Not only are they indicating more liberal or permissive positions on any number of issues, they are also describing themselves in very consistent terms as more socially liberal than they were just a matter of about 17 years ago. Our final reflection on this report is simply to note the humbling, indeed chastening reality that on none of these moral issues has there been long-term change in a more conservative direction ever since the dawn of the 21st century. That’s a pretty humbling reality, but it’s also very clarifying in terms of understanding what we’re now up against.

The "new monogamy"? What the open marriage movement says about our cultural moment

Next, we shift to a piece of additional evidence about the long-term trends that have been documented by Gallup in just the last several days. This piece of evidence comes in the cover story of Sunday’s edition of the New York Times Magazine. The headline in the magazine,

“Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?”

Now let’s just state at the onset that I’m not going to be able in this conversation on The Briefing to cite very much directly from the New York Times Magazine article. It is simply too explicit, but what’s important here, too important to miss, is what it means for the New York Times Magazine to run this article about open marriage as its cover story in May of 2017. In order to understand the significance of this cover story, you have to go back just about a generation to the year 1980 when the novelist Gay Talese came out with his book Thy Neighbor’s Wife. It was scandalous; it was salacious; it was 1980. But what was scandalous and salacious in 1980, the stuff of fiction in particular, is now nonfiction, and you see it in the cover story in this New York Times Magazine edition.

But as you look at the story, it is both numbing and it’s sad. It also demonstrates the tawdriness of the issue that is now such a focus of attention at the New York Times that they put it on the front cover the New York Times Magazine. That, by the way, is a pretty significant barometer in terms of the larger mainstream culture, at least the culture represented by newspapers such as the New York Times.

The article begins by telling us that a revolution is underfoot when it comes to marriage and sexual morality—as if we needed to be told that. But what you need to remember from the previous conversation is that the Gallup poll indicated that now approaching 20% of American—a rather breathtaking number—say that they would find polygamy morally acceptable. Now this article is not explicitly about polygamy. It is about polyamory, as it’s defined, in this case, what’s described as an open marriage.

One signal of the direction this article is going to take comes on the second page of this very long essay in which a woman is cited, her name is Tammy Nelson. She identifies as a sex and couples therapist in New Haven, Connecticut.

Back “in 2010, she wrote an article in Psychotherapy Networker, a professional publication, about the frequency with which she was encountering married couples whose ideas about fidelity were more lax than those she encountered at the outset of her career.”

Here, I’m reading from the text of the article,

“She thought of the phenomenon as ‘the new monogamy,’ which became the title of a book she published in 2012.”

In her words,

“The new monogamy is, baldly speaking, the recognition that, for an increasing number of couples, marital attachment involves a more fluid idea of connection to the primary partner than is true of the ‘old monogamy.’”

She says,

“Within the new notion of monogamy, each partner assumes that the other is, and will remain, the main attachment, but that outside attachments of one kind or another are allowed — as long as they don’t threaten the primary connection.”

Now what’s important about that is just how morally clarifying those few sentences turn out to be. Now at the onset, Christians have to note that there is no such thing as the new monogamy. There is only monogamy. There is no such thing as being a little bit monogamous or even mostly monogamous. Monogamy is an exclusive category. It means one, and only one. But what you notice here is how all of the most stable categories of moral meaning are now being reconstructed. They are being often deconstructed in terms of the service to this new sexual revolution. If you can talk about a new monogamy, you can talk about a new reality. You can talk about a new marriage. You can talk about a new anything. But that’s really the point, isn’t it?

Now just almost 2 years on the other side of the Obergefell decision by which the Supreme Court invented the legal reality of same-sex marriage nationwide—you might say the new marriage—we now have the argument in public of the new monogamy. But what we need to note here is the acceleration, the velocity of the moral change that we’re looking at. We’re not talking about a very long period of time here. We’re talking about at this point in terms of the Obergefell decision less than two years. But one of the things that was pointed out even before the Obergefell decision was handed down, that once it did become the law of the land, as it is declared, it would virtually redefine the entire society, as if you could say, not merely marriage. You can never put the word merely in front of marriage anymore than you could put the word new in front of monogamy.

I didn’t raise the Obergefell issue or the same-sex marriage question by accident. It shows up in this article. As one of the prophets of this new monogamy, or at least this idea of open marriage, is indeed Dan Savage who was an LGBTQ activist and an advocate for same-sex marriage. But from the beginning, Savage was very clear that the advent of same-sex marriage, especially in terms of men married to other men, one of the things he was honest about is that monogamy would basically go out the window. It was Savage who coined the word monogamish rather than monogamous.

One of the men cited in the article was a gay man married to a man, Logan Ford, who said,

“I find it more impressive when straight couples are open.”

He said,

“Gay couples know from the beginning they have to create their own thing.”

With that new thing is out with the old thing, which meant monogamy, and once again LGBTQ activists, at least many of them, were very open and saying that monogamy was not a part of the picture they wanted in marriage.

Another point that comes out in this article is that there is a strange continuing attraction to marriage, which leads some of these persons, even though they reject monogamy, to want to be married. Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and the author of the 2010 book “The Marriage-Go-Round,” says that at least part of this is attributable to the fact that Americans tend to be more religious than persons in other nations, himself making the point that there’s a very clear tie between marriage and religion.

Susan Dominus, the author of the essay, cites Cherlin and then points to what she sees as a tension in this country that leads to high rates of divorce but is also open to remarriage, she says, “with worrisome outcomes for finances and children.”

She then says this,

“Openness in a marriage,” she says—remember this is the open marriage she is describing—“for better or for worse, would seem a natural outgrowth of those conflicting cultural values, especially since same-sex marriage, open adoptions, single-parent homes, and ideas about gender fluidity have already redefined what constitutes a family.”

She then says,

“Two-thirds of Americans feel that ‘a growing variety in the types of family arrangements that people live in’ is ‘a good thing’ or “makes no difference,’” that according to the Pew Research Center in 2013.

The profiles that are found within the article—again, I can’t read much from them to be honest—they are very heartbreaking in terms of what they reveal. For one thing, the couple that is introduced in the beginning of the article at one point has to explain to their teenage children what it means for parents to be involved in an open marriage.

Sometimes in reading an essay like this you can almost feel an argument coming. In this essay, I felt an argument coming. Somewhere I knew they were going to have to make the argument given their own logic about some kind of biological necessity, some kind of evolutionary argument behind this. Indeed, Dominus writes,

“There may be people who are more inclined toward monogamy or polyamory than others, who may even, at least one study shows, have some genetic predisposition toward one or the other.”

Now let’s just notice this, watch it, understand what it is. It is an effort to try to translate a moral question into simply a biological questions, the argument that it just must be that some people have a genetic predisposition to monogamy, others to polyamory. In terms of the biblical worldview, this points to the fundamental confusion of a secular society over the difference between is and ought. That is say that even if they were to be some kind of medical report that would indicate a genetic predisposition, that wouldn’t have the kind of clinching effect that it is implied in this article that it would have. That is to say if it were to be somehow claimed to be proved that it was discovered there was a genetic predisposition in terms of persons, some of whom were genetically predisposed to save and others to spend or others to borrow, that wouldn’t make all three equivalent. It wouldn’t make thrift any less important. Furthermore, if it were to be found or claimed to be found that there is a genetic predisposition to thievery, that wouldn’t make you anymore pleased to live next door to a thief.

But all of that aside, the really most interesting aspect of this is that we long for any justification of our immoral behavior. And if we can find some kind of claim to genetic or biological argument, we will certainly seize upon it. Here’s evidence of it right in the midst of this article.

Christians reading an article like this will certainly respond with alarm and with increased awareness, but we also need to recognize that in the oddest way it also brings a certain comfort, the comfort of knowing that by God’s grace we actually do know what marriage is. We know why marriage matters. We know why God gave us this gift, and we actually know what monogamy is. We know that just as there is no such thing as the new morality, there is also no such thing and never will be as the new monogamy. Still, this article, the cover story in the New York Times Magazine, sends a signal, a signal we dare not miss.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing